Timothy Mckinney's Baadasssss Song

Making art and fighting back: the lowdown on Minnesota's first black feature

Timothy McKinney is a filmmaker. Indeed, he is the writer-director of one of the most vivid, deeply felt, and historically significant feature films ever shot in Minnesota. He is also--at the moment, and for the past two decades--a filmmaker without a camera.

"I was downtown the other day when they were unveiling that statue of Mary Tyler Moore," recalls McKinney on a recent Saturday morning. He's sitting on a bench in Loring Park with the sun on his back and a sharp wind threatening to pull a rave review of his one and only movie out of his hands. "I looked up and saw this huge crane in the sky with a camera perched on it. Imagine how I felt. I just stood there and thought, 'What I would do with that equipment.'"

What he wouldn't do with it, I'd imagine, is film Mary Tyler Moore.

"I had a certain amount of anger about life--about Dr. King's assassination, Malcolm X's assassination, about a lot of things": Filmmaker Timothy McKinney
David Kern
"I had a certain amount of anger about life--about Dr. King's assassination, Malcolm X's assassination, about a lot of things": Filmmaker Timothy McKinney

McKinney is 49 years old and an assistant manager at the SuperAmerica down the block from where we're sitting. When he was 19, he began filming Hampton Alexander, believed to be the first (and perhaps the only) dramatic feature made by an African American in Minnesota. Doubling as a rare document of St. Paul's black community in the early Seventies, the movie tells of a laconic young man who returns home from Vietnam to avenge his father's murder. The killer is one John Weldon, a white, racist city council member with a keen interest in the "Maximum Travel Highway Project" that has already split the neighborhood in two. McKinney conceived his own project as a response to the vivisection of the Rondo neighborhood by I-94, and it consumed him for the better part of three years--not counting the other 27 that he has spent remembering how good it felt to be behind the camera.

"I'm passionate about film," says McKinney more than once--and he isn't putting on airs. He speaks wistfully of editing on a flat-bed 30 years ago ("I was in heaven, okay?") the way other men speak wistfully of getting laid on a flat bed 30 years ago. When recounting the details of a particularly inspired directorial choice--crosscutting in the film's first scene between shots of the father's murder and a commercial jet carrying the son home to get even, for instance--he'll end with the verbal equivalent of a playfully immodest bow: "Thank you so much!" Asked to consider how he'll feel on Thursday night when Hampton Alexander screens at Walker Art Center (it'll be only the fourth public screening of the film), he pictures getting tears in his eyes and leaving the auditorium to collect himself, as he has done twice before. "I suppose that's my baby," he says of the movie, the sole print of which was missing for more than a decade before it turned up in the attic of producer Bobby Hickman's ex-wife and was subsequently donated to the Minnesota Historical Society. (McKinney reckons that the original 16mm negative will remain lost forever.)

The fact that Hickman is the nephew of Gordon Parks--whose classic Shaft was released the year before Hampton Alexander began production--had little or no direct bearing on the funding of the latter film. Like McKinney, Hickman was inspired not only by Parks's pioneering films themselves but by his progressive vision of the camera as an alternate "weapon." As director of the nonprofit Inner City Youth League in St. Paul, Hickman raised Hampton's $28,000 budget through grants and private donations after McKinney--then an assistant in the youth league's community-theater program--had begun to share his dreams of making a movie in and around the Selby-Dale neighborhood.

By that time McKinney was already experienced in the dramatic arts. He had written a play about the Chicago 7 during his junior year at St. Paul Central High, and the following year had created his own politically minded musical called Life is TCB, whose cast of 30 performed the work at eight area schools and at the Stillwater prison. But Hampton Alexander--whose script he began writing before graduation and finished while taking film courses at the University of Minnesota at Morris--was always a movie in his mind.

"I would walk around the neighborhood seeing entire scenes in my head," says McKinney, who drew from his dismay at the gentrification that seemed designed to result from the construction of I-94. The young director was also motivated by his thrill at discovering the first wave of new African-American films--Ossie Davis's Cotton Comes to Harlem, Melvin Van Peebles's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, and, particularly, Parks's Shaft.

"In 1971, Shaft was it," recalls McKinney, who illustrates the point through a one-man rendition--complete with horn blasts--of Isaac Hayes's score. (Hampton's funky soundtrack--performed by Peter and Paul Johnson of the Seventies-era Selby-Dale band Purple Haze--is a time capsule in its own right.) Like Parks, McKinney has little patience for use of the term blaxploitation to describe the revolutionary outpouring of films made by and about African Americans in the early Seventies. The aforementioned rave review that's now flapping in the wind--written last April in City Pages apropos Hampton's screening at City Club Cinema--asserts that the movie "clearly mimics the blaxploitation of the day."

"That just doesn't make sense," says McKinney. "These films were exploitative of who? Black people? It was a treasure to finally have images of African Americans on the big screen. The success of Shaft gave millions to black people to become their own producers." So, too, McKinney takes issue with the CP critic's claim that the title character (played by community-theater actor Ralph Stafford) spends much of the film "getting decked out in groovy getups [and] getting busy with 'Afro queens.'"

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